With nearly every sports organization on the planet on pause at the moment as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s an opportune time to reminisce about some special moments in sports history.
On this day in 2011, Jon Jones became the youngest champion in UFC history when he defeated Mauricio “Shogun” Rua by third-round TKO at UFC 128 at the Prudential Center in New Jersey — a day that commenced one of the most impressive and notable title reigns in all of combat sports.
Jones had a 12-1 pro record at the time with his lone “loss” being a disputed disqualification against Matt Hamill in a fight he was completely dominating. After earning decisions against Andre Gusmao and fan favourite Stephan Bonnar in his first two UFC appearances, Jones went on a streak of destruction by choking out Jake O’Brien, elbowing Brandon Vera and Vladimir Matyushenko into oblivion before handing current Bellator two-weight champ Ryan Bader his first career loss.
Rua was originally scheduled to face Rashad Evans at UFC 128 but Jones accepted the fight on short notice after Evans sustained a knee injury in training.
Apart from a minor traffic incident in 2009, this was a time prior to Jones’s legal troubles tarnishing his image outside of the cage. It was a pro-Jones crowd in Newark on a night that felt like a changing of the guard in the UFC’s marquee division.
As the fight began, the first strike Jones decided to attempt was a flying knee. Then Jones threw a head kick, front kick, spinning side kick, overhand right and tripped his opponent to the ground with ease all within the first 25 seconds of the opening stanza.
Rua had beaten Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Kevin Randleman, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Alistair Overeem (twice) in Japan’s defunct PRIDE organization before knocking out former champions Mark Coleman, Chuck Liddell and Lyoto Machida in the UFC. The Brazilian’s legacy was already well established yet he was outmatched by Jones in every facet of the fight.
Jones was longer, stronger, faster, more creative and a step or two ahead of Rua both offensively and defensively at every moment.
The second round was another five minutes of utter domination and Jones continued to put a beating on Rua in round three before a combination that began with some brutal knees to Rua’s ribs followed by a left hook to the body and a knee to the forehead had Rua crumpled on the canvas.
It was a masterclass of modern mixed martial arts.
Jones was four months away from his 24th birthday when his hand was raised, making him the youngest champion UFC fans had ever seen. It was his first time headlining a pay-per-view card and, remarkably, he was less than three years into his professional MMA career.
“With what I saw tonight, it looks like he’s a mile ahead of everybody else,” UFC president Dana White told reporters after the fight. “He looks incredible. In my opinion, not only is he the No. 1 light-heavyweight in the world, he just shot right up in the pound-for-pound category too. What he did tonight was phenomenal, I don’t even know what else to say.”
UFC athletes are at times viewed as modern-day superheroes for their ability to show off electrifying moves like the ones Jones displayed in real-life combat situations. Well, what added another layer to Jones’s extraordinary moment in 2011 was what happened earlier in the day when Jones went from cage fighter to crimefighter.
Mere hours before he was scheduled to arrive at the arena for the biggest fight of his life, he and his coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn headed to a park in Patterson, N.J., for a pre-fight meditation. Once there, however, they heard an elderly couple scream after a would-be thief smashed a car window, robbed them and bolted.
Jones and his coaches took off after the larcenist and eventually caught up and tripped him to the ground. The men were able to subdue the criminal until police arrived.
Jones recounted the incident in detail at the post-fight press conference.
An unforgettable moment in MMA history.
Since that day, Jones has earned 13 additional victories with Machida, Evans, Vitor Belfort, Alexander Gustafsson and Daniel Cormier among his victims.
Jones has gone the distance in seven of his past nine fights and his two most recent fights in particular — a split decision win over Thiago Santos in 2019 and a controversial unanimous decision over Dominick Reyes in February — have some thinking Jones’s reign atop the 205-pound division might finally be nearing end. Whether that comes to fruition or not, we’ll soon find out.
Jones has never been the most popular fighter on the UFC roster, in large part due to his various indiscretions, but it’s damn near impossible at this point to argue that he isn’t the greatest of all time — and his claim to GOAT status officially began on this day nearly a decade ago.